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Tit for Tat

Duty, Virtue and Consequences

Triangle3 Whenever we are dealing with ethical situations, choices and decisions, we are dealing with an agent acting on certain principles to produce certain outcomes. Whatever the situation, whatever the dilemma, the three elements will remain the same: an agent, actions taken, outcomes that result.

We can learn, derive or devise many different ethical systems but all must contain one or more of these three approaches: 

  • Agent-focused approaches centre upon the nature and characteristics of the agent, referred to as virtue.
  • Rights-focused (or rules-focussed) approaches centre upon the nature of the actions, and often upon the obligation (or permissibility) implied by those actions, referred to as duty.
  • Outcome-focused approaches centre upon the results of the actions – what happens after the actions are taken, referred to as consequences.

These three elements define an “Ethical Triangle”, inside which all ethical discussion must be framed. And since nothing else is involved in an ethical situation but people acting, actions taken, and outcomes that result, this represents a complete model of ethical systems (albeit one of many). Of course, individual systems can include elements from any or all of these different approaches – the variety of actual ethical systems possible is essentially limitless, even within a single framework (such as a particular religion).



In an agent-focused approach, the important factors are the qualities of the people concerned. The most established systems of this type are forms of virtue ethics – in general, such systems talk about what constitutes a good, righteous, or perfect person (depending upon the ethical criteria of the system). Aristotle is the most famous proponent of this kind of approach.

There are many advantages of such a system – not least of which that it is based around identifying ethical role models who can be emulated, rather than trying to specify universal rules or predict outcomes. A common example of an agent-focused ethical practice is embedded in the famous phrase “what would Jesus do?” which holds out Jesus as an ethical role model to be emulated. This example also reveals one of the key disadvantages of this approach – how can anyone actually know what someone else would do, let alone a paradoxical figure such as Jesus? 

Another serious issue is that if one believes ethics and legislation should be related – that is, that the law should be ethical – agent-focused approaches provide very little guidance. They praise good people, but they do not provide a leverage point to consider rules of conduct.



In a rights-focused approach, which can also be referred to as a rules-focused approach, the actions are the relevant element. Such systems are known as deontological, meaning essentially “the theory of moral duty”. Immanuel Kant is the most famous proponent of a deontological position.

Why does focusing on actions lead to rules? The way we approach the ethical issues surrounding actions is to consider what actions are allowed or permitted, or which actions are required or obligatory. In either case, what is specified are rules – permission rules, or obligations, which collectively denote duties. Duty and rules are equivalent – any rule assumes a duty to comply with it, otherwise it is not a rule. 

Why are rules and rights equivalent? When we speak of rights, such as human rights, we are actually talking about rules of interaction – rights place constraints (specify what is permitted) or specify requirements (obligations). For example, the human right to freedom of belief (one of several liberties protected by the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is in effect a rule obligating states and individuals to take no action that compromises a person’s freedom to choose their own beliefs (or, alternatively, specifying that interference in this right to choose is not permitted).

But there are problems, of course. Language is not robust enough to express rules perfectly (since our ideolects cannot be assumed to match), and besides, most people believe that life is too chaotic for strictly enforced rules to govern behaviour in all situations. Furthermore, a perfect rule-based system of ethics requires clearly demarked priorities for the many different rules. The complexity rapidly exceeds what is manageable for an every day context. 


Finally, in an outcome-focused approach, the important element is the outcomes of actions. These systems are usually referred to as Consequentialist, to emphasise the focus on outcomes rather than rules, or the virtues of the agents involved. The most famous Consequentialist ethical system is utilitarianism (although it is by no means the only such approach). This particular school is usually credited to Jeremy Bentham, with some formative influence from David Hume. 

On the surface, this seems like an excellent approach – shouldn’t we judge situations on how things turn out? In practice, this is a tall order. Ethical decisions must be made before actions are taken, and we as human beings have very limited abilities to predict even the overt consequences of our actions, let alone the subtleties. God may be able to operate a perfect outcome-focused system, but anyone without omniscience will run into difficulties.

However, this is not to suggest that there is no value in Consequentalist approaches – it may be that there are certain dilemmas and situations which we can only resolve with an appeal to the outcome, and not just to the nature of the agent, or to rules of conduct. This being so, some outcome-focused elements may be essential to a robust ethical system, although anyone who is able to enforce rules in all situations (as Kant claimed he could) may be able to work from a purely rights-based position. 


The Past and the Future

Ethical decisions occur in the present, but the actions ethical agents take, and their consequent outcomes, leave a mark on the past, and radically affect the future. Hannah Arendt, exploring the nature of action in her book The Human Condition, notes that two particularly troublesome elements of actions relate to their outcomes – that they are irreversible (once undertaken, they cannot be excised from the past) and that they are unpredictable (since no-one can see the future, we cannot determine with certainty the ultimate outcomes of our actions). 

Working entirely from a secular position, she notes that remarkable solutions to these problems have been provided historically by religion. She suggests that forgiveness is the antidote to the problem of irreversibility (by allowing mistakes to be erased in the hearts of the people affected), and that promising ameliorates the problem of unpredictability (by overcoming humanity’s general unreliability through mutual agreements, thus creating ‘isolated islands of certainty’ in a future which remains an ‘ocean of uncertainty’). She traces the former insight to Jesus of Nazareth, and the latter to Abraham of Ur. (From an Eastern perspective, a very different – but significantly equivalent – account could also be given).

Arendt’s view looks outside the Ethical Triangle, and in weighing up the general consequences of action as a process identifies a valuable role for rights-based ethics, since duty is the source of the strength of promising, and an equally valuable role for agent-based ethics, as forgiveness can only be understood as a virtue, and not as a rule, since we cannot force people to forgive. From an outcome-based perspective, the consequences of societies able to forgive, and to dutifully promise, seems undeniably more appealing than the prospect of a society that lacks these abilities. 


A Tripartite Lens 

Ethics seen through this model becomes a set of three lenses which we can switch between, learning something different from each view. The Golden Rule, for instance, seen through the agent-lens yields ‘The Golden Virtue’ of compassion; through the rights-lens, it becomes the classic statement of ‘love thy neighbour’ and its equivalents; and through the outcome-lens it becomes the desire to choose those consequences which are most compassionate for all concerned, as best as our limited faculties will allow. Whatever the ethical situation or dilemma, we can switch the lens to give us a different point of view, perhaps allowing us unique and valuable insights into the nature of the problem at hand, and occasionally giving us ideas for new solutions.

Expanded from part of the sketchpad notes in Are You Ethical? If there are other parts of that post that you would like expanding, just let me know!

The opening image is Infinite Triangle III by Bela Fidel, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked. (I originally posted this with a different image... but a sneaking suspicion I had used it before turned out to be correct!)


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Well done, Chris ;) I wonder if you like to share more insights from your reading of Arendt? Your post just reminded me that on reading "The Human Condition" I found Arendt's approach of "Vergeben" and "Versprechen" the most practically useful expansion on "reciprocity" I've come across so far (which to me is an ethical "founding principle" that seems to be essential but is somewhat elusive at the same time.)

translucy: I know I said this would have to wait until after San Francisco, but as it happened I scraped up some spare time last night. ;)

I have extensive notes on 'The Human Condition' I want to write up, but it's a *major* endeavour - much more labour intensive than my usual long rambles. I will tackle this as part of the Ethics Campaign, I think, but when depends upon other factors. Knowing that you have some interest might encourage me to tackle it sooner - we'll see how it goes. :)

Best wishes!

I've used these (or similar) categories in my own musings on the subject. Agent-based would seem to have their focus on Who You Are, whereas Rights-focused would seem more related to What You Do. (Consequentialists would also be concerned with 'What You Do', except from a different angle; I might need to adapt my nomenclature.)

It's also interesting to note how each of these approaches can be perverted in their own way: Agent-based turns readily into public relations -- "How You're Seen" -- Rights-focused spawns rule-lawyers and loop-hole hunters, and consequentionalists -- well, anyone else watch Heroes? (or read The Watchmen, for that matter.)

Trevel: in working out these thoughts, I had hoped to be able to get into a Who, How, Why kind of space, but I was never able to tease apart a role for outcome-based approaches in this model. Perhaps it could be seen as Who You Are, What You Do, and What Happens - yet it is somehow unsatisfying to use 'What' twice.

Regarding Alan Moore's 'Watchmen', there is surely a Consequentialist parable embedded in this tale, although it has many other themes, of course. I think this might be the most... I'm not even sure of the right adjective... lets say 'impressive'... graphic novel of the twentieth century. I'm extremely doubtful the film version can do it justice.

Thanks for the comment!

I must admit that the more I think of it, the harder I find it to include outcome-based ethics in the same category of the other two -- which could simply be because I attend to Agent-based and Rule-based ethics for my own system. Yet, I find that who you are and what you do are naturally wedded together in a way that "What happens after" is not.

And yet the outcome must still be considered, I would think, if just to avoid particularly bad pitfalls -- long term disaster bought by short term good. (Do the means justify the end?)

Finally: I look forward to seeing the film version, as disappointing as it may be. I have been quite disappointed in how many of my friends (who have interest in such things!) have not read this before. There is a point, though: it is a book that is difficult to UNread; it changes the framework used in examining the super hero universe.

Trevel: we'll end up looking at the Consequentialist perspective in more detail at some point, I'm certain. I have a suspicion that even if one organises one's own ethics around agents and rights, one cannot escape a role for outcome-based thinking - even if it is just as an "emergency measure" when all other ethical approaches fail.

As for the permanent effects of Watchmen, I think it is the nature of the over-used term 'post-modern' that narratives that perform the relevant switch in perspective have enduring influence on our point of view of a particular genre. Sadly, my bleary Monday morning mind is incapable of furnishing the necessary additional examples to support my claim. :)

Best wishes!

I know this is an old post, but I wanted to mention that if one takes a consequentialist perspective, then one could justify doing all sorts of horrible things as long as one could justify the end result was worth it.

It seems if you combine all three approaches then that should work fairly well. I am never sure Chris whether my conclusions after reading your topics were what you were trying to say, or whether your intent was merely to either spark independant thought in the reader, or discussion.

Katherine: no problem commenting on an old post - part of the fun of this 'game' is that old material can come back up for fresh discussion!

I agree with you that Consequentialism, if not tempered by other ethical perspectives, can lead to some pretty horrific outcomes. I believe this is a basic problem with modern politics, actually.

And yes, my plan is rarely to lead people to a specific conclusion (although I may layout my own conclusions), but rather to provoke interesting thoughts and occasionally some debate and discussion.

Are you new here, incidentally? Or a lurker just commenting for the first time?

Best wishes!

I've heard the same argument against utilitarian ethics before, and I can't quite puzzle out why so many find it persuasive. Unattainability of complete morality owing to our human foibles is no more a decisive indictment of utilitarian ethics than it is a decisive indictment of Christian ethics, or for that matter, virtue ethics (Is there anyone we can point to that has truly been Aristotle's great-souled man?).

The complaint seems to rest rather on the fact that unattainability rests upon competence or intelligence, which rubs many people the wrong way (though, oddly, this may mesh with some of virtue ethics, which is occasionally quite practical in its application- I again refer to Aristotle's great-souled man). I can agree with this sentiment, but I also feel that this poses no significant challenge to utlitarian ethics provided that one distinguishes between the morality of an action and the morality of the actor. I am perfectly willing to call any action which brings into the world more human unhappiness as a moral evil, but the perpetrator of that action is not necessarily an evil agent. I feel that a person is acting morally if, to the best of his or her abilities and knowledge at the time, they act in such a way as they believe they are acting for the happiness of all involved.

"I know this is an old post, but I wanted to mention that if one takes a consequentialist perspective, then one could justify doing all sorts of horrible things as long as one could justify the end result was worth it. "

The consequentialist, would, of course, retort that one has a moral imperative to act in such ways that the end will be the best, and the truly horrific morality is the one that refuses to dare all in the pursuit of happiness for his fellow human beings.

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